Welcome Glogger Steve Steinbock!

Pillow Talk
or The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side of the Gene Pool

Steinbock1

By Steve Steinbock

Shall
we talk about sex?  Come on, you know you want to.  My chat with you
today grew out of a discussion I had with J.T. about the sexy scenarios
in her writing, and what I saw lacking in sex scenes written by men.

Gerritsen Presumed
SpicyDetective2

This
is all how it looks from where I’m sitting.  Unless stated otherwise,
everything you read here comes from my own narrow, admittedly-flawed
straight-male perspective.  But as I see it, there is a distinct
qualitative and quantitative difference between the way male and female
writers write about the sacred and private act.

When asked if
sex was dirty, Woody Allen is reputed to have answered, “Only when it’s
done right.”  The same could be said of all writing.  A writer has to
get his hands dirty if he wants it real.  But that doesn’t mean that
love scenes need be visually graphic with coalescing body parts.  The
best love scenes give a sense of the passion and urgency, the heat and
the release, without having to resort to purple prose clichés involving
throbbing members and moist femininity.  Anatomy lessons are fine in
medical tomes and Philip Roth novels.  But they can murder a love scene.

Romantic Times

Eroticism
in modern crime fiction has a mixed ancestry, making this a difficult
discussion even if it didn’t embarrass me to write it.  On the feminine
side, we have Romantic Suspense, a subgenre that brings together
elements of – well, duh – Romance and Suspense.  My exposure to Romance
fiction – what is sometimes pejoratively referred to as the
bodice-ripper – is admittedly limited.  I’m awed and impressed by the
scope of this genre.  There are dozens of categories of Romance, and
each category has subcategories of its own.  Each has its own
traditional structure, and its own rules as to how much – or how little
– sex can appear in its pages.

The basic rule of a Romance Novel
is that the central plotline involves the romantic love between two
people, and that the book has a happy ending.  Romance Writers of
America

lists nine subgenres, ranging from Contemporary Romance to
Inspirational Romance to Paranormal Romance.  Over at Harlequin, they list around forty categories and
subcategories, covering various historical periods, ethnic groups, and
supernatural curses.  Some of Harlequin’s categories, like Tender
Romance and Inspirational, are pretty tame.  But over at Silhouette
Desire and Harlequin Blaze, things can get pretty steamy.

In her
blog column of December 16, 2008,
Tess Gerritsen wrote about her work under the Harlequin Intrigue
imprint:

The editorial guidelines suggested a balance of fifty
percent romance and fifty percent suspense, with at least one love
scene somewhere around the middle of the book. . . . It's a fun genre
to read, but writing those love scenes was an ordeal for me, generating
piles of crumpled pages.  Writers who denigrate the romance genre
should try writing a four-page sex scene, without any purple prose,
that manages to be both erotic and deeply emotional.   It's the most
challenging writing you'll ever do.  It makes writing murder scenes
seem like a piece of cake.

“Men’s” Fiction

On the other
side of the family tree is the Men’s erotica (a term I use advisedly)
that grew out of the pulp tradition.  Magazines like Black Mask and
Dime Detective often had suggestive cover art, but one had to look no
further than Spicy Western, Spicy Mystery, and Spicy Detective to get
the more risqué and suggestive material.  As the pulps began to fold
up, sexy paperbacks became more widely accepted. 

Cassiday Gang  

Bruce
Cassiday was one of those writers who transitioned from the pulps to
paperback originals.  Under the names “Carson Bingham” and “Max Day” he
wrote a number of lurid paperbacks including The Gang Girls (1963) and
The Resort (1960).   MWA Grand Master Lawrence Block wrote more
sex-novels than he could – or would care to – keep track of.  In fact,
while as far as I know, no one else ever wrote under the names “Andrew
Shaw” or “Sheldon Lord,” Block refuses to associate with books like
Army Sin Girls and Call Girl School.  But to a few of his early sex
novels, including some lesbian romances written as “Jill Emerson” and
the coming (no pun intended) of age adventures of “Chip Harrison,”
Block has reluctantly given his name.

Harrison


Viva la Difference!

So what distinguishes the sex scenes written by men from those written by women?

When
I began thinking through material for this essay, I drew a line down a
page and tried to chart out the differences.  But I very quickly
discovered that the lines aren’t well drawn once you go beneath the
sheets.

A few observations:

I. Men are more shy at sex-talk than are women.

Perhaps
this is a product of our wiring, the same thing that makes it tough for
us guys to talk about our feelings.  Do you ever see men talking to
each other in the rest room?  (Straight men, I mean).  No.  It doesn’t
happen.  Two men standing at side-by-side urinals will go to great
lengths to ignore each other’s presence.  Women on the other hand. . .

By
the way, it’s a well established fact that a man who brags about his
sexual exploits is either exaggerating or is making the whole thing up.

II. The fantasy lives of men and women differ. 

Here’s
where I know I’m going to get in trouble.  But at our most instinctive,
men are hunters, and women are gatherers.  For men the fantasy is the
hunt and the conquest.  For women, it’s being held.  (God, I’m
embarrassed to have typed that, but there’s enough truth in it that I
can’t go back and delete it).

But wait.  It gets more
complicated.  Men have an instinctive need to conquer, but in our
fantasies, we like to be teased.  Women instinctively want stability
and commitment, but – and I don’t claim to understand this – their
fantasies often involve being ravished.  Just look at the typical
Harlequin book cover.

Sex1  

The
objects of our desires likewise differ.  Men (in literature and by and
large in life) tend to fantasize younger, nubile women.  Nabakov took
this to a lunatic extreme.  Women tend to fantasize big, strong,
strapping men.  The book covers don’t lie.

Sex2

So
by extension, sex scenes written by women tend to show fulfillment. 
You get the whole act.  Sex scenes written by men tend to be more
teasing, titillating.

And what is it about that word, titillate?  Just saying it, just typing it turns me on.

So who writes better sex scenes?

A few months ago at the KillZoneAuthors blog, Clare Langley-Hawthorne wrote a column that sparked an interesting exchange.  Author John Gilstrap said:

No
sex scene has ever survived to the final draft of any book I've
written. Women write that stuff better than men, I think, because they
learned sensual prose from the masters of the romance genre.  I learned
mine from Penthouse Letters.

To which Clare Langley-Hawthorne responded:

Ah
John – if only it were true that all women writers did write sex scenes
better! Kathryn, I agree that humor and sex often go hand in hand (so
to speak) and maybe that's when the difficulty arises – making it
intentionally rather than unintentionally funny!

On my own
blog-column of January 23, I opined
that women have an easier time writing about sex then do men.  J.T.
Ellison responded:

I find writing sex one of the most difficult
things I do. I purposefully avoided sex in my first book because I
simply didn’t have the guts to try it. When I finally did, I may have
gone a wee bit overboard (see hotel room scene in 14 – and yes, I’m
blushing writing that.) I’ll tell you though, the sex scenes I enjoy
reading aren’t by women, they’re by men. Barry Eisler, Daniel Silva,
Lee Child – they can all hit the right, ahem, notes.

J.T, I’ve
been meaning to talk to you about that hotel scene.  Murderati members
don’t throw their sex around willy nilly.  A good sex scene – like any
scene in a novel – should serve to advance the plot.  The love scene at
the W Hotel in J.T.’s novel 14 takes place in the aftermath of a very
unpleasant sequence in which Ellison’s heroine has escaped from the
clutches of a sexually depraved villain.  Taylor’s lover, John Baldwin,
is sensitive to this fact, and handles her with careful reluctance. 
But Taylor’s sexual urgency builds as they approach the hotel room:

Taylor
was on him before the door lock clicked to let them know they were
safely ensconced in the womblike area.  Her ferocity astounded him.

What
is worth noting here is how the love scene between Taylor and Baldwin
serves as an emotional counterpoint and tension release to the ugly and
traumatic scene that preceded it.  Alexandra Sokoloff uses a love scene
to similar effect.  In chapter 25 of The Harrowing, Sokoloff’s
protagonist Robin Stone is raped by a ghostly entity.  In the following
chapter, in the aftermath of rape and a murder, Robin and a male ally
escape to a motel where they find solace in a surprisingly fierce love
scene.

None of this answers our question: who writes better sex?

Laura
Lippman’s recent anthology of short stories, Hardly Knew Her, not only
contains some of the tightest writing around, it also has some of the
sexiest.  The stories ooze of sex and sensuality.  In more than half of
the stories, female characters use their seductive talents for revenge,
money, justice, or just plain fun.  In the story “Dear Penthouse Forum
(A First Draft)” the female protagonist is writing a fictionalized
account of a sexual encounter when she stops and says:

. . . too
much buildup, she supposes, which is like too much foreplay as far as
she’s concerned.  Ah, but that’s the difference between men and women,
the unbridgeable gap.  One wants seduction, the other wants action. 
It’s why her scripts never sell, either.  Too much buildup, too much
narrative.  And frankly, she knows her sex scenes such.  Part of the
problem is that in real life, Maureen almost never completes the act
she’s trying to describe in her fiction; she’s too eager to get to her
favorite part.

Was Laura being cheeky when she wrote that?  Was
it irony that drove her female protagonist to complain about “too much
foreplay” and her own eagerness to get to “her favorite part”?

Harley
Jane Kozak’s upcoming novel, A Date You Can’t Refuse, contains one of
the wildest, hastiest, and most concisely written sex scenes I’ve
encountered.  It takes place on a rooftop parking lot at Neiman Marcus,
and is captured with the words:

We didn’t talk much.

You gotta love it.

So
back to our core questions: What is the difference between sex scenes
written by men and woman?  And who does it better?  I don’t think I can
answer that.  The grass is often greener on the other side of the gene
pool.

Now enough talk.  Go do it!

I mean, go write about it!

Oh, what the heck.

___________________________________________

Steinbock3
Steve Steinbock is the regular Friday columnist at CriminalBrief.com.  As a book reviewer and columnist, his
work has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Armchair
Detective
, Crime Time, and the Portland Press Herald.  He is the Review Editor for The
Strand Magazine
, is a Contributing Editor for AudioFile Magazine, and
serves on the board of the International Association of Crime Writers – North
American chapter.  He is recognized
as an authority on the history of crime and detective fiction, and was the
opening speaker at the Ellery Queen Centenary Symposium at Columbia
University.  In his day job, Steve
is a Bible Scholar.  No,
really.  He is the author of three
books and numerous articles and columns on the Bible and Jewish philosophy.  He can translate the Old Testament from
the original Hebrew and show you all the nasty parts.  He lives in
Maine.

PS: Many thanks to my friend Mr. Steinbock for sitting in for me today – we've been excited about this column for a while! I'm traveling today to the So. Carolina Book Festival (where I'm engaged in a million things over the weekend, including a panel with our Alexandra) and didn't want to ruin Steven's excellent column with blathering at the top.  Enjoy, discuss, and I'll check in as I can during the travel day. See you next week!

35 thoughts on “Welcome Glogger Steve Steinbock!

  1. Chuck

    Great stuff Steve, and thanks for the info! Unlike JT in All the Pretty Girls, I usually have to edit out a few of mine, or pare them down. You bring up some interesting points I’ve never considered. I’m going to take some time and query some of my female beta readers to get their thoughts.

    Thanks again!

    Reply
  2. Jerry House

    Many of the Andrew Shaw books were not written by Block. He did a number of them and then (supposedly) sold the pen name to another writer. I understand that there were at least three authors responsible for the bulk of the Shaw books. The pen name was also changed to Andrew Shole for some books.

    Reply
  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Steve, I’m thrilled that you read THE HARROWING but I have to correct the record – my protagonist is not raped by a ghostly entity. That was another character, Lisa, who is psychologically reliving her very ambivalent incestuous relationship with her brother.

    Have to agree that women generally write better sex scenes (I mean, if the purpose is to turning you, or I guess I mean me, on. I think it’s because men are turned on by the visual and most never learned to translate that visual effectively into words. In bed or on the page, 😉

    I can also answer your question about overpowerment, or ravishment fantasies (which a lot of men have, too, btw.) For women who were taught that they should be “good” it’s about not having to take responsibility for the sex. If you’re forced by someone you want to ravish yourself, it’s not your fault.

    For those of us who believe “being good” encompasses “being good in bed’ – it’s not so much of an issue. But still fun to play with.

    Reply
  4. Steve Steinbock

    Chuck, good point. It’s always a good idea to have someone from the opposite gender do some fact-checking for you. If I’m remembering correctly, British writer Alex Keegan (a man who writes about a female sleuth) had a female proofreader tell him, “Caz wouldn’t use the word ‘breasts’; she’d say ‘boobs.'”

    Jerry, thanks for the clarification on “Andrew Shaw.” It’s just like Block to pull the shawl – er, wool – over me.

    Reply
  5. Steve Steinbock

    Alex, fascinating stuff about ravishment fantasies. Regarding the whole visual/verbal thing, there’s a whole range of human experience that men generally lack the hard-wiring to put into words. (In Kabbalistic terms – I’m still thinking of THE HARROWING – us guys have a hard time verbalizing anything in the middle five Sephirot).

    Regarding the rape in The Harrowing, I wasn’t referring to Lisa’s experience. Rather, to Robin’s experience (page 175) that precipitated her roommate’s taking the dive. I read that as an assault, even if it happened only in Robin’s dreams, which was why I didn’t think Robin was responsible for what happened to Waverly. (Sorry to anyone who hasn’t read the book!)

    Reply
  6. toni mcgee causey

    Steve said: “Regarding the whole visual/verbal thing, there’s a whole range of human experience that men generally lack the hard-wiring to put into words.”

    And here’s where I have to respectfully disagree. I don’t think men lack the hardwiring at all. If there is any lack in people, both genders, it’s that we lack either the awareness of the value of something to the opposite gender or, having the awareness, we lack the practice or the desire to meet the opposite gender’s needs on that issue. To lump all men into one giant “but I’m a guy, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it” excuse doesn’t delve deeply enough into the issue, and, frankly, isn’t fair to your own gender. You guys are smart. You’re perfectly capable.

    Now, crime fiction writers may not see a value in descriptive sex scenes, and that’s a whole different issue. I think the questions to be asked are, “Why is there a trend toward more explicit sex scenes in crime fiction than there have been historically?” or “Is there a trend, or is it in certain sub-genres only?” Is it a trend because of greater awareness on the part of writers that reflecting all parts of a human being’s relationship to the world has value, not just the way they respond to a dead body or blood and guts? Is it a socioeconomic impact because more women are buying books than men, and women statistically value the development of relationships in a book? Is it an awareness by crime fiction writers that there have been too many stereotypical “girls” and “women” as flat, secondary characters and the writing would be improved by actually giving these characters a life and value beyond just objectification? That the perception of the *men* as more developed in a novel increases if the way they perceive the women around them is more than just an object of affection, lust, or a subservient aid to the resolution of the crime? Or is this trend strictly related to the sub-genres where the obvious cross-over for women and if so, why? Why is it more important or more masculine or more impressive to segregate off sex as if it is something “other” — something to be embarrassed about?

    I think these are all relevant questions for crime fiction writers today, especially in today’s marketplace where we all need the cross-over reader. In fact, I think the real insidious nasty part of the implication we risk here is that crime fiction writers would love to have the romance reader, but don’t want to openly admit it by actually calling something romance.

    Whatever the reason, men are smart, layered, complex, intriguing, fascinating, sexy, and completely capable of writing well. Writing a sex scene well is no different than writing an action scene well, or a dramatic moment. I happen to believe in men, and like them a helluva lot, so I know they’re capable. 😉

    Reply
  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, I see, Steve! That’s fascinating – I never had anyone tell me they thought Robin was assaulted in that scene. It was more to me like the “Night Hag” visitation, so often reported (and painted): when some heavy supernatural being is perched on your chest.

    Toni asks a lot of great questions above. I think there’s also the Hollywood influence on novels… you rarely see a commercial movie without a love plot. After working in Hollywood it’s so automatic for me it wouldn’t ever even occur to me to write a story without one.

    Reply
  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Steve

    What an interesting topic. It has been my general experience that male writers have a tendency to concentrate on the mechanical side, whereas female writers tend to concentrate on the emotional side. (And yes, I do realise that I am generalising HUGELY here.)

    This is as true, I think, of action scenes as of sex scenes. Women tend to portay violence from the viewpoint of the victim, men more often from the viewpoint of the perpetrator. Perhaps this is because women, again in general, respond to psychological stimuli as much as physical.

    Personally, I like to read about the development of a relationship between characters within a story, and if a sex scene serves that purpose, then it’s as valid a storytelling device as any other. People reveal a great deal about themselves during sex and fictional characters are no different.

    But I have read authors where you can almost set your watch by them – “Ah-ha, page 176, there must be a sex scene along shortly …” and then it just feels far too calculated. Just as some violence is included purely for its shock value, some sex is included just for its titilation value, as it were.

    Another oddity is that sex scenes do not stand up well to out-of-context public scrutiny. What sounded highly erotic when played out in whispers inside your head, will sound thoroughly cringeworthy when read out in front of a large group of people.

    Reply
  9. Allison Brennan

    I’ve had this discussion often with fellow writers. IMO, there’s a hierarchy of books: romance is always at the bottom. It’s considered formulaic and trashy. It doesn’t matter that romance is the top-selling genre and romance readers the most avarice of all readers. The NYT bestseller list is weighted specifically and intentionally against romance (and I’m sticking to that story until they release their methodology for picking the bestsellers).

    It’s also pretty standard that if a woman wants to write crime fiction, she’d better have a gender neutral name or grab a pen name. It is much harder to build a female crime fiction writer because there’s an automatic bias against her. That’s why most (not all) female crime fiction writers start in romantic suspense. And why the relationships within the book are as important as the external plot even when they break out into the mainstream suspense world. Look at on of my all-time favorite authors Tess Gerritsen, who started by writing romantic suspense and while I’d probably say that THE APPRENTICE was the last book I’d put in the romantic thriller category, she still has some of the best characters out there BECAUSE of her roots. Yet she is dissed by mystery readers and writers because she (gasp) wrote romance at one time. When VANISH was rightfully nominated for an Edgar, she was trashed on several blogs as unworthy BECAUSE she HAD BEEN a romance writer.

    I completely agree with Toni’s comment that crime fiction writers want the romance reader, but they often (not ALL crime fiction writers, but many) don’t want the romance label. What male crime fiction author would automatically be shelved in romantic suspense because he has a sexual relationship in his books?

    I was lurking on a message board and read a comment about one of my books. Ironically, it was my FIRST book. And the reader said that it was pretty good for a suspense novel but there was a bit too much romance in it, but she wasn’t surprised because I’d started as a romance writer. Huh? It was my first book! I get emails from mystery readers embarrassed because they have to go to the romance section to buy my books. They want me to call their bookstore and tell the manager that my books are shelved wrong.

    I read Phil Hawley’s STIGMA (GREAT book and if you haven’t read it, you should) and I teased him that if he was a woman, he’d have been marketed as romantic suspense and Luke and Megan would have had sex in Guatemala. (And, I guess because my mind is in the gutter, I know exactly where I would have put the sex scene in!) Phil’s Megan is one of the best female characters I’ve ever read who was created by a male author. Others do it well, too–

    Anyway, just rambling and not as eloquent as either Steve or Toni in this discussion 🙂 I think the covers posted really shows the target audience of each of the genres, though, and definitely deserves more discussion.

    Reply
  10. Allison Brennan

    Zoe, what you said. I think you’re right on the money about the main differences between male and female authors in a very general way. It often comes down to hormones: women, in general, care more about the emotional well-being of others. Men care more about the physical well-being. I read a study once–wish I could remember where–that men who lose their employment have a greater risk of depression because they see it not simply as a job loss, but as not being able to provide for their families. Women see a job loss completely different.

    But a flip side, and also a hugely compelling psychological study of women, is that because we tend to be more in tune emotionally with the people around us, we also know how to emotionally hurt others. The “mean girl” syndrome for example. Girls know exactly what to say to get at the core of an emotional weak spot of their opponent.

    BTW Steve, great blog– 🙂

    Reply
  11. Jake Nantz

    I love this discussion, because my first protag is happily married, but the plot takes place entirely over one weekend where, dammit, they just can’t take a breather to, well, do some heavy breathing. My biggest fear was not that I’d have to write a sex scene (a fear, yes, but not my biggest). It was that I wouldn’t be able to market the book without one. It’s a thriller, and the romance is lightly there, but the protag’s wife does more for character development than furthering the plot with affection and sex. So I’m spooked that, even if the rest of it is good enough (it’s not yet, but if…), will that be a failing. I mention it primarily because of what Alex pointed out. I’m a big movie hound, and I know there isn’t much chance of a film getting made wihtout romance, so it concerns me.

    Does that make sense?

    Reply
  12. Lori Armstrong

    Ah yes, the great sex debate. I’ve said this before in public and with other author friends, and I think it bears repeating: When a male mystery fiction writer writes a decent sex scene – he’s deified. When a female mystery fiction writer writes an even better sex scene – she’s sneered at for lowering her standards to those of a common romance writer. What bugs me the most in this subgenre of fiction, is the sexism within the community: some female mystery writers will snark about other female mystery authors for having an explicit sex scene in their books, but will slaver all over themselves complimenting a male writer for the exact same thing.

    Not to mention crime fiction writers want the romance reader audience because like Allison pointed out, it’s freakin’ HUGE (yes, I know this firsthand, since I also write erotic romance). And don’t think for a second those authors who claim to write “sexy” thrillers wouldn’t bitch to their publisher if their thriller/mystery was suddenly shelved in romance–because dammit, they’re *not* romance authors…

    The genre expectations between romance and mystery are different. So when explicit sex scenes are “slipped in” to mystery, I often yawn, because romance/erotic authors do it so much better.

    Reply
  13. Allison Brennan

    “because romance/erotic authors do it so much better.”

    wink wink

    Lori has an excellent point and something I’ve thought for a long time. I think it goes back to the fact that women know exactly how to twist the emotional pain . . . female authors tend to be far more critical of other female authors.

    Also, there’s the expectation issue–if a multi-genre reader (someone who reads broadly) is reading a romantic suspense, there are certain expectations they have based on the story promise–if it’s shelved in romance and looks like romance it had better have a romance. You need to have a resolution to the relationship.

    Looking back to my books, the sex scene almost always involves a trust issue. My heroine is giving the hero more than a good time, she’s giving him her trust. The hero often at that point becomes more protective but also confused (there is truth in fiction, after all! 😉 . . . but at the beginning of the scene, the heroine offering her trust, while the hero usually is acting on male hormones. Some of the guys who write sex scenes portray the women as femme fatales or users; or, there is nothing *after*–no trust, no emotional connection, no raising the stakes BECAUSE of the intimacy, whereas in romantic suspense the stakes are usually raised because of the intimacy.

    And Zoe, I never say it better than you. I always take three times more words to get across the same point because my editor isn’t around to circle phrases: repetitive. Repetitive. Repetitive. Didn’t you say this on page 10?

    Reply
  14. Steve Steinbock

    Toni, I hope that my post didn’t give the impression that I was trying to make the “but I’m a guy” excuse. I do think that the hardwiring difference is a real thing, but heaven forbid it should be used as a cop out.

    And we’re talking generalities. I can name dozens of series written by women writers whose female protagonist is in an ongoing relationship. The only male writer I can think of is Robert Parker and his Spenser character. (Hardly an example of a sensitive male).

    Zoe, regarding your comment – “Women tend to portray violence from the viewpoint of the victim, men more often from the viewpoint of the perpetrator.” That comment made me cringe! But again, as a generality, I think it’s probably true.

    Reply
  15. Jake Nantz

    See Alex, that’s so interesting to me because I LOVE works written from the POV of the villain, if they’re done well. It’s so common to be in the head of someone we’d *like* to be, that once in a while I find it entertaining to see what’s in the head of someone I most certainly would NOT like to be. A kind of experimental freedom, if you will.

    I guess I just always had you pegged for an experimental kind of lady…

    (I keeed, I keeed)

    Reply
  16. Allison Brennan

    Well, I’ve already over-commented, but I’ve been thinking about this post all morning to the detriment of my writing.

    By and large, young males don’t read stories about sex, they sneak their dad’s Penthouse and look at the pictures of nubile young, naked women with fake boobs. You don’t see young females sneaking copies of Playgirl. I like looking at hot guys as much as the next straight female, but it isn’t a huge turn-on. Instead, girls will sneak their mother’s romance novels. I remember passing around FOREVER by Judy Blume among all my friends in the eighth grade. We all knew where the “good parts’ were.

    On a crime related difference, male serial killers torture, use knives, get up-close and intimate with their female victims. They are very hands on in their crimes. Very visual. Female serial killers sometimes use guns, but usually they’re “hands off”–poison is the weapon of choice. THEY aren’t killing the victim, the POISON is. They don’t even have to witness it. They don’t have to look at the blood, they don’t usually want to. It’s subtle. The way men and women portray violence in books is often the same way they portray sex–what Zoe said about the victim’s POV really resonates because it’s the emotion of the scene that is driven home by many female authors, while the action of the scene is driven home by many male authors. Neither way is wrong, it’s just our different ways of looking at the world around us.

    Okay, now I’m REALLY going off line to write.

    Reply
  17. Steve Steinbock

    Allison, I’m glad I had a fun topic with which to distract you.

    Everybody, re. the way the Snoberati like to “dis” Romance fiction and erotic suspense. . . the New York Times and their ilk have a nasty case of Venus envy.

    Reply
  18. Thalia Leigh

    Stevie, O Stevie, Dear Heart,

    When you write that men like this but women like that (the opposite), you touch upon the issue (ahem), but miss the crucial point. We’re mirror images of each other, yin and yang. Your fellow blogger, ADD guy, wrote about it months ago. I commented “he gets it,” as the feminine response noted.

    Despite all the feminist diatribe, why do the vast majority of romance novels love alpha males and woman who fall into submission and surrender when their heart is captured? Because at heart, that’s who we both are.

    But I have a disturbing question regarding women’s restrooms: Exactly how do you know what goes on in our loo?

    Finally, where you quote Laura Lippman, you (or she) write “And frankly, she knows her sex scenes such.” Stevie, was that a typo? Do we have a little freudian fear about sucks? Ah, dear heart.

    Reply
  19. Steve Steinbock

    Thalia, I hate making thypos like that. It just suchs!

    Okay, so we’re Yin and Yang. I get that. I agree. We’re different. But when you call me “Stevie” it puts me in a submissive mood. Explain that.

    Reply
  20. pari

    Steve,Wonderful to have you at Murderati. I’m going to save your post for when I have time to really think about it AND all the comments.

    Right now, my personal reading and writing have been so devoid of anything close to erotica or sex scenes that I’d just sound too, too frustrated . . .

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  21. J.T. Ellison

    I see Steve has this conversation well in hand. Fascinating comments today, folks. Lots of food for thought.

    I would love to see someone like Barry Eisler be referred to as romantic suspense – I write thrillers, he writes thrillers, I have some sex, he has lots of sex, I’m called RS, he’s called a thriller. Double standard…

    My readers on the romance side are upset that there isn’t more romance, my readers on the thriller side get upset with sex. A writer can’t win these days, except to tell the story the way it’s meant to be told and hope the reader doesn’t judge according to the sex of the author what the content should be.

    And hey, Lori Armstrong, damn good to see you out of your cave, woman!

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  22. Thalia Leigh

    Dear Heart, it’s not submission, not for an alpha, but vulnerability to the fairer sex. It’s what leads to ecstasy of the soul – or crushing of the heart, in darker times. Sad to say, we women can be guilty of that as men, but we romance writers seek out the positive in the hope the negative can be put to rest, … Stevie.

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  23. Bill Cameron

    I see a lot of fascinating talk about who does what how well and why, but not a lot of talk about whether it needs to be there at all.

    Here’s my confession. When I’m reading mystery or suspense and I get to the sex scene, I skip ahead. Why? Because even if it’s a great sex scene, I find it an unnecessary distraction. The rule of thumb is that it’s not unnecessary or a distraction if it “advances the plot,” but I think that’s one of those rules that gets fudged when it comes to sex scenes.

    Don’t get me wrong. I like sex as much as the next fella, especially if I’m a participant. But on the page, I find again and again that it’s the thing that’s going on when I’d rather see the mystery and suspense going on. It’s just in the way. It’s … dare I say it? … boring.

    Now, I am not a romance reader. I’m not an erotica reader either. But I have read romance and erotica and in those settings if I enjoyed the books at all, I enjoyed the sex scenes too. But for whatever reason, when I read mystery and suspense, the sex leaves me flaccid.

    So, as a reader, I ask why’s it there at all? I know some of the answers. It helps you understand the characters more deeply, etc. Sure, whatever. I generally find that I understand the characters just fine without all the thrusting and moaning. I too often feel like the sex is added because, well, sex sells. You gotta have sex there, if for no other reason so when a stranger picks up a copy of your book that someone left on the bus, it has a page to naturally fall open to.

    Is there sex in mystery/suspense that I DO like? Definitely. Not sex per se, but when sex has some awkward or awful side effect, then usually I find it more interesting than good sex. I want my real life sex to be good, but I want my fictional sex to be the emotional equivalent of the murder or other crime the book is about. I want it to suck AND to blow, if you take my meaning. I’m not interested in the frictive details so much as the roiling aftermath.

    All this said, it’s something I’ve struggled with as a writer.

    In my first book, I fell into the trap that Jake suggests: inserting sex because I thought I needed it to sell a book. But I also suffered a failure to commit, probably because I knew unconsciously it didn’t belong, so the act itself was off-camera. A number of reviewers noted that the sexual relationship seemed to not work, and in conversation with one of them I admitted that if I could rewrite the book now, I’d make my guy sleep on the damn couch.

    In my second book, I include a very awkward hand job scene that ends well. Do I think I was advancing the story with it? Yes. Do I do a good job of it? Hell, I don’t know. But I was starting to find my way in terms of what I think worked in terms of sex in mystery fiction.

    In my current work-in-progress, there is all kinds of sex. Bad sex. Sometimes nasty sex. Sex that leaves the character a bigger mess afterward (and not the kind of mess one cleans off with a tissue or a quick shower) than before. That kind of sex is what I find interesting as a reader, and so it’s the kind of sex I seem to want to put in my own work. But that’s the kind of sex that seems the least likely to be found in mystery and suspense.

    I’m not sure what this says about me. Maybe I’m a prude. I’m certainly inconsistent. But I’m also the kind of reader that is probably skipping to the end of your sex scenes. Maybe I’m the exception, in which case you should ignore me. But it strikes me as worth asking if I might, perchance, be the rule.

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  24. Lori

    handjob, Bill, ewwwwww. Why can’t a girl give a decent blowjob?!!

     

    Geesh, Thalia, you’re such a slut!

    Leave poor Stevie alone!

     

    (Sorry, I can’t stop giggling.)

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  25. Jeff Baker

    Loved it, Steve! And when I was around 14-17 I read a bunch of Thorne Smith’s novels for the first time and I didn’t get that there was a lot of sex in them! And, Steve, I loved your bio on this site: one line leaped out at me, you could sing your resume to the tune of the Gilbert-And-Sullivan “Major General’s song”

    “I’m an expert on the Ellery’s, the Chandlers and the mystery arts/I can translate the Old Testament and show you all the nasty parts…”Thanks again!

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  26. M. L. Kiner

    “The Hong Kong Connection” is a legal thriller about a gutsy female attorney who takes on high ranking International officials. It’s a taut, rollercoaster of a ride from New York to Palm Beach to Washington D.C. to Hong Kong. The plot is expertly woven, the characters persuasive, and the dialogue snappy and spot on.www.StrategicBookPublishing.com/TheHongKongConnection.html

    Reply
  27. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Steve

    Sorry to return to this discussion far too late to be any use (been away working all weekend, but when I read:

    ‘Zoe, regarding your comment – “Women tend to portray violence from the viewpoint of the victim, men more often from the viewpoint of the perpetrator.” That comment made me cringe! But again, as a generality, I think it’s probably true.’

    I felt I should come back and apologise for saying something you felt was so crass and cringeworthy.

    Sorry …

    Reply

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